Normally when Rachel Bell pulls her shopping cart out the front door of her Fairfax Drive home in Arlington, it's to visit the Giant food store in the nearby Virginia Square shopping center to stock up on groceries.
But last month, Bell's shopping cart was put to a different use. She stacked it with petitions that she lugged to the Giant, where residents were busy collecting 6,353 shoppers' signatures, all in an effort to head off a high-rise development they fear could cost them their grocery store. The petitions later were presented to the County Board.
"Most of my neighbors are over 60 and they walk to that store," said Michael Weber, who relies on the Giant. "It's a hub where they meet their friends and it gets them out and about. You take that store away and those people will have to take cabs or community vans elsewhere."
It is a scenario that has been repeated elsewhere in the Washington area, particularly in Washington's inner city: development and economic bad times force a grocery with longstanding community ties to close, leaving residents--many of them elderly--reliant on buses or taxis for grocery shopping.
Giant attorney Michael J. Bush said the area is in no imminent danger of losing the 30-year-old store, which has lease options until 2020 with the shopping center owner, Virginia Square Ltd. But residents are not sanguine.
According to county officials and residents, the store's fate is really out of the hands of Giant's executives because of a legal dispute with the adjacent property owners.
The George Mason University Foundation and Virginia Square Ltd. own different parcels of the 14-acre tract, bordered by Washington Boulevard, North Monroe Street, Fairfax Drive and Kirkwood Road. At the moment, they are disputing who owns just what part of the valuable site, which also houses the university's law school.
As detailed in its unofficial "conceptual plans," the foundation envisions two 14-story office buildings and one 10-story residential building on its six acres, now largely a parking lot. The state-owned five-acre law school campus would not be developed for high rises.
The three-acre shopping center owned by Virginia Square Ltd. could be the future site of one 16-story and two 12-story office buildings, according to the firm's preliminary plans.
More important to residents, however, is that neither plan includes room for their Giant.
"To take it the Giant away and just put up office buildings seems kind of ridiculous," said Bell, a retired secretary. "They're supposed to be keeping this area residential. How are they going to attract people to come and live here if they don't have the facilities people need?"
It is a question that has plagued county officials for years as high-rise development has increased along the Rosslyn-Ballston Metro stop corridor. The county has long been on record in favor of promoting residential uses in the corridor, and the Virginia Square Metrorail stop neighborhood is slated to have the highest concentration of residences of all the stops.
But county officials said the kinds of neighborhood stores that provide important services--supermarkets, drugstores, bakeries, cleaners--are often the ones that are forced out because they cannot afford the higher rents and assessments brought by high-rise office developments.
"The supermarkets in the corridor are all in jeopardy; so are all the service-commercial businesses necessary for people's lives," county planner Suzanne Fauber said.
There are two major supermarkets that serve Rosslyn-Ballston, but both have been reclassified for future high-rise development, and leases can always be bought out.
"It has not escaped our attention," County Board chairman Ellen M. Bozman said, "that with the development of all these flossy, glossy high-rise buildings, somehow you never get a neighborhood service store."
A study of the situation is one of several recommendations of a County Board-appointed ad hoc committee on the future development of the Virginia Square Ltd.-GMU Foundation property. Committee chairman Tom Leckey said the group did not take a firm position on keeping the store in the shopping center.
"This is a countywide problem and needs to be approached on a countywide basis," Leckey said.
The GMU Foundation, a nonprofit group that raises funds for the university, owns six acres of undeveloped property now used for parking by Giant customers, among others. John T. (Til) Hazel Jr., chairman of GMU's board of visitors and a trustee of the foundation, said the foundation has the right to cut off parking for the shopping center patrons.
Shelly Kamins, a vice president of the partnership that owns the three-acre shopping center, said Virginia Square Ltd. has a "contractual agreement" for some of the parking, however.
"We hope we can come to some sort of amicable resolution," said Hazel, a Fairfax County zoning attorney. "But a university can afford to be a charitable institution for only so long."
"Everybody wants to work with Giant, maybe find them another site or an alternative design," said Martin D. Walsh, an Arlington attorney representing both the foundation and Virginia Square Ltd. "This situation begs for a solution."